BEIRUT – March was the deadliest month so far in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war, as rebels pressed their offensive throughout the country, seizing a provincial capital for the first time and launching attacks on other fronts.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 5,896 civilians and combatants died last month, surpassing the 5,400 deaths the observatory recorded in August, the previous high-water mark. The observatory logged 3,893 deaths in February.
Death tolls reported for Syria’s conflict are thought to be largely incomplete. A U.N.-funded study that attempted to collate death reports from a variety of sources concluded in January that at least 60,000 people had died in the conflict by then, at a time when the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had recorded 46,000 dead.
The observatory – which reports deaths as civilian, rebel, government soldiers and unknown – is considered to keep the most authoritative running tally. Examining its reports on a monthly basis provides a clearer picture of the war’s trends than daily news accounts of the horrific violence do.
March’s numbers reveal the extent to which better-equipped rebels on the offensive have changed the war’s complexion. While virtually the same number of civilians died in March as in February – 1,780 versus 1,770 – rebel and government forces suffered far greater casualties. Rebel deaths totaled 1,720 in March, compared with 1,128 in February, a 52 percent increase, while Syrian government forces lost 1,281 in March, a 29 percent increase over the 994 reported in February.
That dramatically changed the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths. In March, civilians accounted for 30 percent of the dead; in February they were 45 percent.
“Rebel actions now frequently involve multiple units, and many rebel units are heavily armed,” said Jeff White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center in the U.S. capital.
White said he thought that new weapons, particularly Croatian arms purchased by Saudi Arabia and shipped to the rebels with American approval, were responsible for the apparent increase in combat deaths.
The most dramatic sign of that increase was rebel deaths, a likely reflection of the new aggressiveness with which they assaulted government positions in Syria’s north and east.